November: The Surreal Month

Everyone has a story about election night. I was in Prague as the ballots were being counted, and in Moscow as the news of Trump’s victory sunk in.

As the votes came in, I had just finished a two-day pilot storytelling workshop for the Greenpeace Czech office, and was settling in at a nearby bar with my colleagues to have a few pints. In that basement bar, we talked about activism in Czechia. About the debacle of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Prague — when expressions of support for Tibet were stifled throughout the city. We debated about whether or not we could make compromises to our principles in order to “exist” in difficult states; we talked about the post-Soviet psyche and the decline of activism in Czechia.

And we talked about the U.S. election. It was just a quick check on Twitter. It looked good for Hillary. Good. She’ll win, I thought, relieved. A woman would finally be in the White House.

I had an early flight to Moscow, so I said my farewells, left the bar, and walked back to my hotel to prepare for the next workshop. I went to sleep, thinking only of my narrow concerns: How will I recognize my Russian driver? Will we be able to talk to each other if we get lost? How will I know if people like the workshop?

At 6 am, I had just climbed into my shuttle to the airport when my driver asked me if I was American. Yes, I said, to keep it simple. He asked what I wanted first: the good news or the bad news. The “good,” I said, “only the good.”

_______, he said.

I have no recollection of the good news, because the bad news is the only thing that stuck.

“You’re kidding,” I repeated over and over, feeling the tears come. As we sped through a pre-dawn Prague, as I checked into my flight, as I watched people laugh and take selfies in front of the airport televisions showing Trump accept the highest office, “You’re kidding,” I repeated.

But my reaction had little currency so far from America, and I got on with my work. The training in Russia was the best one yet. And to my own surprise, I fell in love with the place, with their intensity, their smiles — which felt truer because they weren’t mandated, their history, their bleak sunless November skies, the sounds of their language, the expansiveness of the land.

Russia, you go on and on, and here I am at your edge.

But all that’s over now. And here we are now. Here is limbo. A recount in process. A President-elect building a shadow government. An America that seems more confounding than ever.

I’m back in New York City now. In a different America than the one I left. I mourned the election only after I was back. But people here also seemed kinder — at the airport, at my grocery store.

Or maybe it was just what I needed from them.

I hope 2017 brings us back to our humanity. I fear we may move to darker spaces. I fear we may alienate each other. I hope we talk. I hope we listen. I hope we do not compromise our principles.

 

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October: Reading at The Rubin Museum

This past month, I read from my novel to two very different audiences. The first was at The Rubin Museum in New York City as part of an event called Writing Sacred Lhasa.

Reading there with two fellow Tibetan women writers I admire in so many ways, Tenzin Dickyi and Sonam Tsomo, was especially meaningful to me. Although I’ve read with these two women in the past in informal spaces of our own creation to members of our community (ie. often a restaurant), reading our works to a mostly white audience in a space that collects, stores, and presents our culture left me with many mixed emotions and questions — something I will write about one day.

Most of all though, I was grateful to the good people at The Rubin for giving us that space and opportunity to share our work and talk about ourselves as writers and women and Tibetans.

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At the end of the month, I read at the KGB Bar in the east village with my fellow artists-in-resident at OMI InternationalIn just a few short weeks, I’ve become close friends with these writers from Indonesia, Catalonia, Jamaica, Switzerland, Finland, Wales, France, Zambia, and the US. I hope we get to cross paths again and again.

My favorite readings that night were the funny and moving poems of Catalan writer Anna Aguilar-Amat and American writer Tung-Hui Hu. Check out their work!

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New Anthology of Literature about Nepal

About a year ago, the British publisher House of Zeus reached out to me to see if I wanted to submit a piece to an anthology about Nepal. I shared some stories with them, and they selected “The Greatest Tibetan Ever Born,” which was originally published by Himal SouthAsian — a wonderful and much-needed magazine that sadly stopped running a few months ago.

The story itself is set in Toronto and Nepal, and became the germ of my novel-in-progress. Although the characters and comedic style didn’t make it into my book, the worlds they occupy still ground Transference

Well eventually I forgot all about the anthology. And when I saw my friend Muna Gurung post that her story had come out in it, I congratulated her — not realizing that my own story was in there as well. Anyway, the anthology, House of Snow, came out in August. I’m so grateful and happy to be among some writers I admire from Nepal and elsewhere.

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A New Job & The Old Job

Since my last post, I attended another writing retreat (this time at Catwalk), completely restructured my novel, and started a new job as “Story Advisor” at Greenpeace International. It’s a dream position in every way. I spend my days doing conceptual narrative work, teaching storytelling to activists, and also taking part in concrete campaigning to save the planet. After years in academia, in a world of ideas and rhetoric, the thought that the work I do could actually matter and have real impact is kind of incredible.

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Eager to dive in and understand the world of Greenpeace, I set my book aside for a few weeks. But about a month into my job, I started to feel anxious. A part of my anxiety came from being away from my book. But another, more worrying part, came from realizing that I could just stop working on it completely.

After all, I could be swallowed up by activism, couldn’t I? It happened to me before — when I was recruited as national director of a Tibetan activist organization straight out of college. For an entire year, I did not write a single piece of fiction. It just did not seem important. Literature, writing — all of it seemed like selfish pursuits against supporting the struggle of my people for human rights.

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With activism, there is immediate gratification — in having a purpose that is public, collective, and always seemingly so urgent. Writing a novel, meanwhile, requires patience. It’s the kind of work meant for people who understand that to make art, you have to crawl into a hole for many years (six so far in my case), work quietly and diligently, and come out only when it’s “ready.”

But it has been a long time since my last hiatus from writing, and this time the stakes are much higher. Not only is there this project, the book, there is also the deeper recognition of my need to write. I know now that if I cannot write, if I am not practicing it constantly, everything else I do is — in a sense — dancing around a void.

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Still, knowing you need to write is one thing. Creating a life that makes it possible to write is another. I work from home, sharing one end of a dining table in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, and I quickly found that switching gears from writing communications strategies one moment to my novel the next while sitting in the same place all day was just not going to work.

So this past week, I got myself a membership at a writer’s space fifteen minutes from my apartment. In the afternoons, when I have finished my duties at my new job, I walk to the writer’s space, a place that feels like a retreat into some older part of me, and spend a few good hours each day doing what’s necessary: writing — quietly, privately.

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January’s Writing Retreat

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I’ve just returned from an artist residency in rural Oregon. Arriving at Redmond Airport, I met a fellow resident (and now friend), rented a car, and drove with her for two hours until our cell phone signals disappeared. The drive to Summer Lake featured long stretches of empty desert roads flanked by enormous mountains sweeping up to the sky.

As we drove, I kept remarking at how this, this scale, this emptiness, looked like America, or at least the one I had imagined growing up in Nepal, and my friend, also from half way around the world, agreed and shared her own misconceptions about the country that would eventually become homeIMG_20160118_143238387

Then the climb began and so did the switchbacks and the reminder that we were playing with death. The sun set before us and suddenly we were in the pitch dark, making calculations about which shade of blue signified sky and which the ground. Finally, just after we narrowly avoided hitting a couple of deer, we reached the residency.

Before us was a small collection of cabins, each designated to a different person. We could tell our homes would be comfortable and quiet, but we had no idea of the extraordinary landscape beyond our cabins. We could not see the playa stretched before us — not until the morning, that first morning when I actually walked out onto the balcony barefoot with a blanket around my shoulder to take in the view.

IMG_20160120_073118838I loved my cabin. It was at the very end of the property, facing a range of mountains that went from purple and pink to white to gold. The light changed constantly. My days were long, starting before sunrise — sometimes as early as five. I wrote through the morning, made frequent trips to my kitchen, moved from my bed to the desk to the arm chair, and read books (including Knausgaard’s My Struggle Book 3, H is for Hawk, and Alice in Wonderland) that seeped into my own.

Then, on some evenings when I was a little lonely, I went out and joked and drank and commiserated with the fellow artists. There were a couple of trips to a hot spring and a local bar where we took free shots from the owner, and I definitely country-danced a little. But mostly we talked about our projects, about America, about relationships, and then we retreated back to our silences, our work.

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